Rancorous Liaisons


The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, by Katie Roiphe, Boston: Little, Brown, 153 pages, $18.95

Only Words, by Catharine MacKinnon, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 152 pages, $14.95

Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, by Linda Fairstein, New York: William Morrow & Co., 288 pages, $23.00

Sex Crimes, by Alice Vachss, New York: Random House, 285 pages, $21.00

For all the talk of anti-feminist backlash, the truth is that, in the '80s and early '90s, the radical feminist party line on date rape and sexual harassment was virtually unchallenged in the media. (For the record, REASON was the first to call attention to the campus date-rape hysteria, in July 1990.) Now revisionism is suddenly respectable to the point where the debate over a new "sexual correctness" blighting the love lives of Americans has made the cover of Newsweek. The change is probably due to the convergence of two events: news stories about the self-parodying sexual-offense code at Antioch College (which requires explicit consent at each new level of intimacy) and the publication of Katie Roiphe's provocative, irreverent book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus.

Roiphe, a 25-year-old doctoral candidate at Princeton and the daughter of noted feminist writer Anne Roiphe, was in an unusually good position to write this book—not only because of her belly-of-the-beast vantage point but because her pedigree makes it more difficult to smear her as a part of the "backlash." Roiphe wants to reserve the label of rape for acts involving the use or threat of force; that this is considered "controversial" brings to mind George Orwell's remark that in certain times the duty of every decent person is the restatement of the obvious.

The Morning After has its weaknesses, a paucity of research above all. When Roiphe challenges the common statistic that one in four college women is the victim of rape or attempted rape, she reflects, "If I was really standing in the middle of an 'epidemic'…if 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know it?" Intuitively, this makes sense, but it is an argument that, when not backed by alternative statistics (which do exist), is vulnerable to attack. Nor does Roiphe cite any actual incidents of alleged date rape hinging on miscommunication or "psychological coercion" (except for a sketchy account of a New Jersey court case that did not involve students).

But then, Roiphe herself explicitly states that she did not set out to write "a comprehensive, encyclopedic sociological analysis." Rather, The Morning After is a very personal look at campus sexual politics: "I have written what I see, limited, personal, but entirely real." What she sees, through the eyes of one who grew up with feminism as a celebration of female strength, is a new rhetoric that wallows in female victimization, depicting women as passive, childlike creatures who need to be protected.

And she does cite plenty of evidence that her concerns are not groundless—such as official pamphlets advising new women students, "Since you can't tell who has the potential for rape by simply looking, be on your guard with every man," and warning men to obtain "a clear sober 'yes'" to make sure they're not committing rape. Campus literature and workshops define "verbal coercion" into having sex—by arguments such as "everyone's doing it"—as a form of date rape, and "unwanted sexual comments, jokes or gestures" as "a form of sexual assault."

While this chilly environment has not snuffed out sex, its effects are visible. At a party, two sophomores discuss the dangers of acquaintance rape: "One of them says a male friend of hers recently confessed that he was infatuated with her. Afterward, she let him drive her home….'Nothing happened, thank God,' she tells her friend…'but it scares me to think of what could have, it scares me to think that I trusted him after I knew how he felt about me.'" For some young women, ritual recitation of alleged abuse (from violent rape to sex after too many beers) at Take Back the Night marches has become a perverse form of self-affirmation. (See "Radical Exhibitionists," July 1992.)

Roiphe acknowledges that the causes of this focus on the dangers of sex are not entirely political; it has to do with the fear of AIDS and with more-general fears of being hurt, of losing control. But more importantly, in today's climate, "there is power to be drawn from declaring one's victimhood and oppression." It is this pursuit of "the coat-tugging authority of the downtrodden" that disturbs Roiphe, not only because of the hypocrisy of the shouting about being suppressed and voiceless ("The first Take Back the Night march at Princeton was more than ten years ago, and every year they're breaking the silence all over again") but because of the self-destructiveness of this kind of empowerment.

The "rape-crisis feminists," Roiphe says, are reviving stereotypes of lewd men and innocent women, and "promoting the view of women as weak-willed, alabaster bodies whose virtue must be protected from the cunning encroachments of the outside world." The idea that men in our society automatically have more power—the premise behind rules protecting women against unwanted sexual attentions not just from bosses but from equals or even subordinates—devalues women's accomplishments. Feminist victimology threatens to take us back to the old saw that woman's greatest strength is in her weakness.

A fascinating chapter The Morning After focuses on legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon (dubbed "the anti-porn star") as the leading exponent of the new "victim" feminism that sees sexual violation as central to the female experience. Those interested in learning more about the woman who gave us our current sexual harassment laws can turn to MacKinnon's own latest opus, the mercifully short Only Words.

A blurb from Columbia University's Patricia Williams, hailing MacKinnon as "one of the most visible and effective advocates behind this nation's attention to crimes against women," laments that "because her brilliant writing is largely unread, she has become an ideological easy mark." I'm afraid she's got it wrong: It's only because MacKinnon's work is largely unread that she is considered a legitimate advocate for anything.

"Brilliant" or not, MacKinnon's prose does have a certain hypnotic power. It comes from hyperbolic declarations—"I am asking you to imagine that women's reality is real"—and relentless repetition of claims which are meant to be made flesh by the sheer force of faith. Thus she makes constant references to "snuff pornography," films of actual sexual murders. Evidence that such an industry exists is less than scant: MacKinnon fails to cite a single source. Still, she states that "only for pornography are women killed to make a sex movie," and writes, "suppose the consumer could not get in any other way the feeling he gets from watching a woman actually be murdered. What is more protected, his sensation or her life?" This is an utterly spurious question since, even if "snuff films" exist, they are clearly not protected by law.

Elsewhere, MacKinnon invokes anecdotal and inconclusive evidence: a man who raped and hanged a little Asian girl "had spent much of the day of the murder in an adult bookstore" where he might have seen a relatively recent issue of Penthouse showing Asian women "trussed and hung." One feels it is quite useless to point out that sexual violence has existed in virtually smut-free societies, or that it is extremely rare in Japan or Scandinavia, despite wide availability of porn.

Insisting that First Amendment rights should be balanced by 14th Amendment guarantees of equality, MacKinnon points to the inconsistency of regulating "discriminatory" speech in the workplace, as sexual harassment laws do, but not in the rest of society. (Some of us who believe that existing harassment laws infringe on speech in unacceptable ways will agree.) Even more central to her case, however, is the argument that pornography is fundamentally different from all other forms of expression.

Pornographic films are not just speech but action, MacKinnon says, because live women are required—usually coerced—to act in them. Would graphic sex in books or animated cartoons, then, be OK? No, because it would still be acted out on live women: "In human society, where no one does not live, the physical response to pornography is nearly a universal conditioned male reaction." (Women, of course, could not possibly have such a response.) According to MacKinnon, misogynist ideas permeate society, but pornography is uniquely dangerous because it acts not on the conscious mind but on an irrational process: "The message of these materials…is 'get her,' pointing at all women….This message is addressed directly to the penis, delivered through an erection, and taken out on women in the real world."

This doesn't necessarily mean that the consumer of pornography will rape a woman or a child. It may simply mean that after watching pictures of "a penis ramming into a vagina," he "goes and rams his penis into a woman's vagina" (something that evidently would never occur to him without the pictures). Is the ramming consensual? Is it mutually pleasurable? That doesn't seem to matter.

MacKinnon has been often accused of equating all sex with rape and has invariably denied the charge. But if images of sex acts inevitably degrade and violate women, what of the acts themselves? If the recognition that "inequality between children and adults" makes child pornography criminal should be extended to adult porn because of inequality between men and women, should the law treat heterosexual sex as it treats child molestation?

As portrayed in Only Words, men are not innately evil, just made that way by pornography; indeed, MacKinnon shows some sympathy for sex murderers whose claims that smut made them do it were, she feels, unfairly ignored ("we kill a man rather than…stop the pornography that produced him"). But her notion of the evil produced by porn seems to include not just male violence but male sexuality: pornography "gives men erections that support aggression against women." Disapproving references to erections and orgasms pop up, pardon the expression, with alarming regularity. In MacKinnon's vision, the erect penis looms as a malevolent force of almost biblical proportions.

After a tour of MacKinnonland, the actual experiences of a prosecutor confronting the gruesome crime of rape seem like a welcome return to Planet Earth. By a coincidence that must be frustrating to the authors, two such accounts have recently appeared almost simultaneously.

In Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, Linda Farstein chronicles some of the cases, notorious and obscure, that she has handled in her 15-year career as director of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, as well as recent changes in the legal system. Her low-key yet often engrossing narrative explains the process of collecting evidence in a sex crime and bringing a case to trial.

Farstein's overview of the history of rape prosecutions is a valuable reminder that not so long ago, feminists had very legitimate complaints about the way rape was treated by the courts. As late as 1977, a New York appellate court overturned a rape conviction because the complainant did not show "earnest resistance"—even though the man (with whom she was on a date) had hit her, torn her dress, and pushed her down when she rejected his advances. The ruling sparked such an outcry that the state legislature modified and then dropped the resistance requirement, which existed for no other criminal acts.

As a result, "the law came to reflect that submission to a sexual assault—for survival, to preserve one's life or well-being—is not consent to a sexual act." Rules that allowed the victim's sexual behavior to be examined in a trial were also changed to limit such questioning to circumstances directly relevant to consent, such as a prior relationship between accuser and accused.

Yet some jurors may still blame a victim who is seen as having precipitated the attack by, say, being in a bar, or feel that a nice-looking man couldn't possibly be a rapist. (Fairstein adds that "it is often female jurors who are most critical of the conduct of other women [and] who are more likely to make judgments based on the physical appearance of the accused.") Unfortunately, in keeping with the mostly upbeat spirit of the book, Fairstein does not describe any cases her office lost. She does give shocking examples of some defense lawyers' sleazy tactics—such as holding up a victim's bikini panties with a leopard-skin print and arguing that only a prostitute would wear such undergarments—but all these are tactics that failed.

The cases Fairstein does profile offer a variety of awful deeds, from stranger attacks in Manhattan office buildings by "Midtown Rapist" Russell West to acquaintance rapes clearly involving force. Fairstein's vivid descriptions of these crimes—a terrified secretary raped at knifepoint on the cold floor of a ladies' room, a dancer running for help half-naked after being violently overpowered by her date—make any comparison to being nagged into unwanted sex almost obscene.

While Fairstein does not address the expanded definition of rape in Sexual Violence (she has since spoken favorably of Roiphe's book), she suggests that sexual coercion should not be confused with "the games that members of both sexes play to outwit and trap each other"—a statement many rape-crisis feminists would abhor because it assumes that such games are not only normal but reciprocal. Fairstein also devotes a chapter to the politically incorrect subject of false claims of rape motivated by attention seeking and, yes, revenge. The victims here, she notes, are not only the accused but real rape victims: "Each false accusation makes too many skeptics think that every accusation is a false one—which is a danger that cannot be over-stated."

Sex Crimes, by former prosecutor Alice Vachss, who until late 1991 held essentially the same position in Queens as Fairstein does in Manhattan, bears much resemblance to Sexual Violence. Both books include reminiscences of embarking on a legal career and outlines of big and small cases of sexual assault, though Vachss seems to have spent much more time in the courtroom. In literary terms, Vachss is quite simply a better writer; her narrative is more vivid and energetic, the characters more three-dimensional. Her writing is tough and intensely angry.

Not that Vachss is pushing any radical-feminist orthodoxy (in one case, she incurred the wrath of women's advocates by prosecuting an allegedly battered woman as an accomplice with her boyfriend in the fatal beating of her small son). As with Fairstein, the rapes she writes about are clearly acts of violence, not ill-mannered seduction. She is, however, far less satisfied with how the justice system today treats sex-crime victims: "There is a large, more or less hidden population of…collaborators within the criminal justice system"—those who give aid and comfort to rapists.

Often, her anger at the system is well-founded, as when a judge would not find the defendant guilty of rape because the victim, with the perpetrator's jacket over her head, had not actually seen the penetration (the man was convicted of crimes carrying the same penalty—only, Vachss says, because of her comments to the media), or when another judge offered a confessed molester of over 80 boys probation and a lecture tour to educate people about pedophilia before public outrage forced him to impose a four-year prison sentence.

What is troubling, however, is that Vachss seems never to have met an acquittal she didn't hate: "Acquittals were always haunting….Mostly they amounted to the jury doing the wrong thing for lousy reasons." Among these haunting cases is one in which she concedes that the accuser, a teenaged baby-sitter who claimed she had been fondled by a customer, had every reason to lie and provided "facts" that didn't check out. To Vachss, when juries acquit because they say they needed more evidence, "what they really mean is that they wanted to see a better victim." (Meanwhile, to question a guilty verdict is "collaboration.")

It's undoubtedly true that in her-word-against-his cases, based wholly on credibility, juries may acquit because they find the accuser unpleasant and therefore unconvincing; at other times, jurors convict because they dislike the defendant. But while Vachss concedes in passing that false accusations of rape do occur, she mostly seems entirely oblivious to such concepts as the presumption of innocence or reasonable doubt.

This is especially puzzling since Vachss started out as a public defender. She mentions getting probation for a bartender who stabbed and seriously injured his boss, on the grounds that the boss had verbally abused and humiliated him for years. Looks like it's not just in sexual-offense cases that victims are put on trial.

Ultimately, neither Vachss nor Fairstein completely resolves the question of how to balance the rights of victims and defendants in cases where the woman says she was forced or threatened into submission, the man offers a plausible story of consensual sex, and the evidence indicates only that there was intercourse. Unfortunately, this serious issue is lost in the rush to redefine seduction as rape, and rape as a political crime—not one individual's offense against another but, as MacKinnon put it in a New York Times op-ed, an act by a "member of a group sexually trained to woman-hating aggression."

The debate about rape as it is currently framed is clearly about much more than rape. The irony is that while feminists have argued for a long time that rape is a crime of violence and not of lust, "date rape" has now been turned into a code word for questions about proper norms of sexual conduct. The response to The Morning After provides ample evidence of this.

Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman complains that Roiphe's quip about how "one person's rape may be another person's bad night" implies that women should put up with bad nights. Goodman hails the new rules of sexual conduct as affirming women's own right to pleasure. In an exceptionally vitriolic review of The Morning After in The New Yorker, Katha Pollitt chides Roiphe for seeing sex as "basically a boys' game, with boys' rules," and praises women's effort to reinvent the game in a nice, tender, non-exploitative image (which sounds very much like the "difference feminism" Pollitt picked apart last year in a witty, lucid article in The Nation). In Commentary, literary critic Carol Iannone, who likes the anti-P.C. thrust of Roiphe's book, criticizes her for essentially the same thing—expecting women to behave sexually like men—and expresses guarded sympathy for the anti-date rape and anti-sexual harassment movements as "prompted in large part by a quite rational reaction" to the dismantling of traditional standards of chastity.

One might make the modest proposal that the discussion of sexual rules and standards, legitimate though it may be, should be kept entirely separate from the subject of rape. Except that, of course, this would strip the subject of much of its moral urgency. If you tell people that they must ask permission before moving from passionate kissing to touching (and remember to say "please" and "thank you" while they're at it) in order to prevent hurt feelings, many will roll their eyes. But if you tell them it's needed to prevent rape, and actually get them to believe it, it becomes a different matter altogether.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a writer in Middletown, New Jersey. She is the author of Gender Wars, forthcoming from The Free Press.